U.S. nukes in Europe: It's about tactics (and tact, too)
WASHINGTON -- To the disappointment of many Europeans, the review conference for the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) which opened in New York last week, will not focus primarily on the tactical nuclear weapons remaining in Europe. Germans harbor a particular dislike for these weapons (the exact number is classified, but it is thought to be no more than two dozen), because during the Cold War these weapons were aimed mostly at East Germany. That is why German foreign minister Guido Westerwelle found widespread public support when he launched his initiative to include the tactical warheads in the ongoing disarmament talks.
Together with his colleagues from the Benelux countries (Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxemburg) as well as Norway, Mr. Westerwelle drafted a letter to call for the withdrawal of the last American B-61 bombs from European soil. This appeal was repeated at the NATO foreign ministers' conference in Tallinn earlier this month. U.S. reactions to this German-led initiative have been somewhat reserved. In the recently updated Nuclear Posture Review, the Obama administration made it clear that the future of U.S. tactical weapons based in Europe is ultimately for its European allies to decide.
Yet the White House is keenly aware of the fact that there is no coherent European position. A number of East European countries share the perception that Germany and France have turned a blind eye on Russia's attempts to undermine their sovereignty and are demanding a stronger commitment to their defense by the United States. In their view, the American missiles serve as political reassurance that NATO stands by its commitment to territorial defense as laid down in Article 5 of the Washington Treaty. (They also expect the new Strategic Concept to address these concerns as strongly as possible.) Rather than dismantling tactical warheads, many East Europeans would like to see them moved even closer to the Russian border.
Given these disagreements and sensitivities, it's little wonder that Washington is reluctant to get involved. For others--in the United States as well as in Europe--the presence of American tactical weapons is a key symbol of America's enduring commitment to the defense of Europe. For the Germans, not least crucially, it has meant membership in the Nuclear Planning Group and with it participation in decisionmaking on NATO €˜s nuclear strategy. Last but not least, they are seen as potential bargaining chips with Russia, which still has around 3,000 tactical nuclear weapons of its own.
All of this makes it highly unlikely that the few U.S. tactical nukes still based in Europe will be shipped home anytime soon. Of course, Mr. Westerwelle has a point. Tactical nuclear weapons today are meaningless for the security of Europe. Their old rationale--the necessity of deterring a massive conventional attack on Europe--is long gone. But if Mr. Westerwelle wants to get results, he should stop writing open letters. Instead, he should engage Germany €˜s East European neighbors and allies and listen to their concerns. Berlin needs to make the case to skeptical allies why engagement with Russia not only serves German interests but also those of Europe as a whole.
For those allies who want reassurance against Russia, a clear political German commitment might facilitate future cooperation with Russia. That, however, means that Germany will have to stop remaining aloof from the debate on NATO's new strategic concept or, worse, treating it as a distraction to Mr. Westerwelle's nuclear disarmament plans. The NATO ministers' meeting in Tallinn showed that, without a political consensus of the European NATO members, no concrete steps toward tactical nuclear disarmament could be expected soon. That kind of deadlock also sends a discouraging message to the NPT conference in New York. Niels Annen is a Senior Resident Fellow with the German Marshall Fund in Washington, D.C.
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